Sunday, 17 November 2013

Always the traffic, always the lights

“I opened a notebook, it read ‘The Darlinghurst Years’
I snapped it shut, but out jumped some tears”

So begins the song that I’ve been mildly obsessed with recently, ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, from the Go-Betweens’ final album, Oceans Apart, released in 2005. It’s one of those songs that only reveals its mysteries gradually, over repeated listens.

As the opening lines suggest, Robert Forster’s lyric is an (autobiographical?) exercise in nostalgia, looking back to his student days, or maybe just afterwards, living in a shared house where “people came and went”. But rather than a straight narrative, the song is a series of disjointed memories, deeply personal. He remembers “gut rot cappucino, gut rot spaghetti”, and the exaggerated way he pronounces the last syllable, to rhyme with ‘say’, suggests a private joke.

There’s more obvious humour, too, in the way he takes the mickey out of his ambitious, and quite possibly pretentious, former self. “I’m going to change my appearance every day/ I’m going to write a movie and then I’m going to star in a play,” he sings. I remember people like that at college.

As for the music, it starts with a strummed acoustic guitar, then builds slowly after the first verse to incorporate electric guitar and drums as the rhythm gradually becomes more insistent. But what I really love about it is the brass section that you start to notice in the background from about two minutes in, and that slowly becomes more prominent until it dominates the last couple of minutes, like a mutant New Orleans jazz band freeforming over Forster as he repeats the song’s refrain, “Always the traffic, always the lights” until the fade.

Why a horn section? A less imaginative band would have used strings, both because they’re the classic signifier of nostalgia, and because the lyric repeats the line “Joe played the cello through those Darlinghurst nights”. But the horns contribute perfectly to the weird, skewed atmosphere of the song, adding an extra layer of mystery.

Like I say, I love the fact that Forster makes you work to get into the song, and leaves so much unresolved. Above all, I still can’t decide if the tears that jump out are tears of joy or sadness. I think I’ll just go back and listen one more time...


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